‘Hawthorne & Child’ by Keith Ridgway – A Review

I got this book on the basis of a recommendation from Isabel Costello and her literary sofa, and after hearing the author read some extracts at an event a couple of weeks ago.  He read very well, in a beautifully mellifluous tone which accentuated both the pathos and humour in an extract about one character’s obsession with the death  of a racing driver and the evil of Tony Blair, and I wanted to know more.

So, what of the whole book?  Hawthorne and Child are a couple of police detectives apparently straight out of the central casting mould of buddy cops, different from each other, but complimentary, who’ve worked together so long, they know all of each others foibles.  We first meet them as they embark on the investigation of a random early morning drive by shooting in a street in north London.  A standard opening chapter for any detective novel, a murder, the preliminary gathering together of the obvious clues.  But that is the only thing about this book which resembles standard detective fiction.

We never return to this murder, as each subsequent chapter focusses on a different set of protagonists; sometimes Hawthorne and Child are central, sometimes peripheral.  It feels like a loosely connected collection of short stories, as there is no central narrative thrust which runs through the book.

Maybe it’s about the impossibility of always being able to know a complete narrative of anything in real life, and of turning on its head the expectation that a novel will present a coherent story arc, and the mystery of other people and their stories; or maybe it’s challenging us to try to make sense of the unrelated fragments, making us aware of our need to make up or complete partial stories.  Or maybe it’s all taking place in Child’s imagination.  I’m not sure, and I suspect that is at least part of the point.

The writing is very clever and beautifully done, with wonderful phrasing and rhythm which worked so well at the reading, and it is this which kept me going towards finishing the book.  The sense of place, of the peripheral areas of north London is also recognisable and fully realised; but I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down at the end when the book simply stopped.

The main gift it gave me was to make me think about what I find satisfying in a book; yes, it’s about language inventiveness, vocabulary and rhythm; and yes, it’s about place and rounded characterisation, but I also want narrative tension, because without that itch to know what will happen next, it is far too easy to put the book to one side and to read something else instead.  As with any collection of stories, I don’t think it would matter what order you read the chapters in Hawthorne & Child, as one does not follow on from the other; it’s just that together they build up a picture of time and place.

I might be imagining it, but is there a mini trend at the moment for books of loosely connected stories to be published as novels?  I’m thinking of  Girl Reading by Katie Ward, which I enjoyed, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkos, neither of which I managed to finish.  Could this be because the commercial market for short fiction is so weak?  What do you think?

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‘The Writer in the Digital Age’ – The Writer’s View

I wrote yesterday about my observations of a discussion on the proliferation of independent publishers hosted by TLC at the Free Word Centre last week, from my perspective as a reader.  Today I thought I’d reflect a little on what  I learnt from a writers point of view.

I think there are many, like me, who continue to strive to achieve publication by the ‘traditional’ route.  I’d like to engage an agent to sell my novel to a mainstream publisher.  I’d like to receive an advance (no matter how modest) and I’d like to be able to walk into a book shop on a High Street in a town I’ve never visited before and see my beautifully printed novel on the shelves.  I’d like to know that people I’ve never met have read it and connected with it in some way, and that they could appreciate it as a piece of work into which I had poured a great deal of time and effort.  If they wanted to buy it in digital form, that would be OK too, but deep down, it wouldn’t give me the same visceral thrill.

Even as I type this, I know it’s a romantic dream from a time that is nearly over; and I know the likelihood is that I will have to compromise on some, if not all, of it.

Many of you may be thinking  just get on with it.  It’s so easy to publish it yourself.  But I hesitate at that advice.  I’ve worked very hard to write it, and invested a great deal of time and effort in it, and so I want it to go out into the world as well dressed and as well presented as I can possibly achieve.  No matter how much I believe in it, it will still need copy editing, proof reading, and then, when it is finally ready to go, it will need the engine of publicity to make sure that it doesn’t disappear amongst the piles of other books being pumped out into the world.

Listening to the discussion last week about the growth of small independent publishers in the UK, confirmed to me that, while the business models are changing, broadly the same steps in the process of publishing a quality novel remain.  What is changing is the allocation of the risks and rewards.

Under the ‘traditional’ model, broadly, the agent handled all the business affairs, negotiated contracts and advances and royalty rates.  The publisher invested in the author, buying the rights to the book, having it edited and proofed, and then printed and marketed.

In the new world of Independents and Self Publishing all of those elements, the contracts, the money, editing and publicity are still all there, it’s just much more likely that it is the writer who will have to bear most of the upfront costs, hopefully, in return for a greater share of the sales revenue.  But without an agent, or any business savvy, the scope for losing out has increased exponentially.

It is in this environment that people are trying to form their own networks of skilled practitioners, of freelance editors and designers, to work directly with writers.  Byte the Book, which was represented at the talk, is one such example, running networking events for people interested in the new publishing universe.

But at the end of the day it’s a business, and if you want to succeed you have to adopt appropriate business strategies, which, you’ve guessed it, include working out what is the right way to brand yourself in the market…….. I’m just going to have to rid myself of that mental image of a lassoed calf squealing as the smoking branding iron is applied to its rump.

‘The Writer in the Digital Age’ – The Reader’s View

How can we negotiate our way, as both readers and writers, through the world of books and literature in this era of great change?  As greater consolidation is underway amid the traditional publishing houses,  small independent houses pop up every day, and direct digital self publishing becomes easier and more accessible, choice and selection can be confusing, and so it was an opportune time to attend a discussion on the subject hosted by TLC at the Free Word Centre.

I am both a reader and a writer, so I am interested in how to negotiate the new environment in both capacities.  How can I find interesting new things to read, and how can I get my own work out into the market place in the most effective way?

How do we choose what to read?  Understanding how that choice is made, can inform how I might choose to publish my own work.

With all the changes in the publishing environment, browsing in a book shop today, I can have the feeling that I’m seeing only a fraction of what is available in the market; but, equally, I don’t particularly enjoy looking through listings on internet book sites, as I feel over faced by all the stuff that’s there, and don’t know how to gauge the quality of what it is I’m looking at.  I know that there are books out there that have been carefully crafted, edited and cared for, but also there are even more that have not.  How can I tell the difference?

Before this recent period of upheaval we used to rely on mainstream publishers to make the broad selections for us, to essentially curate a collection from which we could choose our preferences.  For the moment, it is not clear who has replaced them in their curating role, but it seems inevitable that from the chaotic multiplicity of the current marketplace, that some new ‘ taste-makers’ will have to emerge.  They might be book bloggers, book groups or other collectives and networks.

The idea of brand is as prevalent in the book business as it is in bottled water,  But which is the relevant brand now?  Is it the writer or the publisher?  Many readers make their choice on what to buy by reference to the writer; I certainly did in my early reading years, and have the complete works of Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and F Scott Fitzgerald in their 1970/80s paperback livery to prove it.  Others rely on the reputation of the publisher,; that was probably me too as I loved the line of Penguin orange spines arranged on the shelves in my bedroom, because I was confident in relying on most of the choices they has made for the compilation of their lists.

Some small publishers, today are tapping into that pleasure for book lovers of having a beautiful row of co-ordinated volumes on their shelves, or like And Other Stories  are inviting readers to subscribe a financial contribution to the publication of future books, hoping that their reputation for making excellent choices will create a group of followers/’stakeholders; the short listing of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home for the Man Booker prize will only enhance their reputation.

Talking of the Man Booker, it is interesting to note that this year the judges short listed three books published by small independent houses. Were they trying to make a point?  Are there more interesting things being published outside the major houses?  And if they are, why is that?

How can the average reader find all these gems without the help of some sort of filter?  The big trick then is to find the right filter for you.

Tomorrow I’ll write about the discussion points I found interesting from the writer’s point of view.

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